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Alexander Fleming’s Microbial Art

Alexander Fleming is widely known as the brilliant microbiologist who gave the world the miraculous life-saving drug called antibiotic. But he also had an artistic side that is perhaps less well known. Fleming was a member of London’s Chelsea Arts Club, where he tried his hand at watercolor and created compositions that were amateurish at best. But his artistic talents didn’t lie in watercolors or pencil sketches but in another medium—living organism.

Fleming was one of the first scientists to use microbes to create works of art. He painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and many other scenes on petri dishes using microbes. Fleming produced these artwork by culturing microorganisms having different natural pigments on petri dishes to create colorful patterns. He used different varieties of bacteria to render colors such as brown, violet, pink, red, yellow, orange and more. With time Fleming’s palette grew richer as he found more bacteria with the colors he needed.


Some germ art made by Alexander Fleming.

Fleming would fill a petri dish with agar, a gelatin-like substance, and then use a wire lab tool called a loop to inoculate sections of the plate with different species. It was all technically very difficult. Fleming not only had to find the right microbes, he had to time his inoculation such that the different species attained the specific colors he wanted all at the same time. These works existed for only a short period of days, after which one mold of microbe would grow into the other and blur the lines of the painting.

Unfortunately for Fleming, neither the scientific community nor the artists of his time gave any attention to his techniques. The story goes that once Fleming prepared a small exhibit of bacterial art for a royal visit to St Mary’s by Queen Mary. The Queen was “not amused and hurried past it” even though it included a patriotic rendition of the Union Jack in bacteria.


Alexander Fleming in his laboratory at St Mary's, Paddington, London.

Modern microbial artworks are exceedingly clever and creative. Here are some germ art submitted to the American Society for Microbiology for their annual ASM Agar Art contest.











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